The Little Engine that Just Won't Die
Model 552A REO engines such as this one belonging to Donald
I first came into contact with the little REO engine sometime in the early 1960s, and quite by accident. I don't recall the precise incident or point of acquisition of this little jewel of a design, but because of its nearly indestructible qualities, I have managed to keep it running on demand for over 35 years. The only maintenance necessary was to change the oil and install a new spark plug. It always started in the spring, after sitting in the barn for over six months, ready for the next season.
The particular engine I'm talking about is a Model 404, Type E2. My information indicates that it was manufactured in 1951 and is rated at 1-1/4 HP and was used on a reel-type mower called the Runabout Model WE-18.
It has done yoeman service, with its first application being a go-kart for the kids. The go-kart had a bed rail frame, a front axle from a Bolens lawn tractor, a rear axle from a Sears & Roebuck reel-type mower and a steering gearbox from an old washing machine transmission. I will never forget how the kids would rev up that little engine while they were running around the yard. I was sure it was going to come unglued, but it didn't! Later on, I put the engine to various other uses, with the latest application being to power the furnace fan I use as my "air-conditioner" for the shows in Michigan.
Assuming I had sorely neglected this little jewel of a powerhouse after 35 years of various kinds of use and abuse (it was smoking a little and fouling out), I decided to tear it down to see what work it needed. I removed the head, the output shaft housing and the crankcase. It was carboned up somewhat, and the valves and seats needed refacing, but to my surprise, there was very little wear to the cylinder. The piston had some side play, and the output shaft seal and bushing need replacing. The crankshaft and camshaft gears showed minimal wear and were in excellent condition. I'll install new rings once I've tended to everything else. Then the little unit will be put back in service, hopefully for another 35 years. It is surprising what a little engine with a 2-inch bore and the heart of a lion can do!
Shown is my grandson Kristopher Kinsey's Model 552A REO, which was used on Model WD-21 Royale reel-type mowers in 1949-50. All REO engines are quite similar, and the model and serial number is specified on the nameplate.
REO, which stands for Ransom Eli Olds, was located in Lansing, Mich. Olds was involved in many enterprises including cars, trucks, engines and various types of lawnmowers. The little REO was manufactured from 1949 through 1958 and was produced in over 20 models with horsepower ratings including 1-1/4, 1-1/2, 1-3/4 and 2-1/4. They were used on reel mowers, rotary mowers and snow throwers. They also had an application for small boats called the Trollabout. The REO mower engine was mounted on a platform in the boat and shafted through the bottom of the boat to the propeller. A simple, inexpensive inboard-outboard! In my travels I have only seen one unit of this type, and one may conclude it was not very popular. Also, this configuration would, I believe, be rather rare.
These engines are certainly unique in design. The cylinder is slanted at a 45-degree angle and the flywheel runs contrary to the conventional rotation. Power is taken off the camshaft, which means the final drive pulley runs in the "right direction." Another feature is the camshaft. It has only one lobe, which operates both valves through a unique system of little levers set at critical angles to provide the proper valve timing. The entire engine was compact, reliable and seemingly indestructible. I can vouch for this from my experience with the Model 404 that I have.
Contact engine enthusiast Donald Kinsey at: 10267 Tyler Road, Lakeview, MI 48850; (231) 972-4613.